MPH student Nicole Sutton graduates after 20 year public health journey

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Graduating with her MPH in health education and a graduate certificate in social marketing and social change, Nicole Sutton began her public health journey 20 years ago after earning her BA with a major in sociology and minor in women’s studies from the University of Tampa (UT) in 1999.

“My direct link to public health came while studying sociology in my undergrad. I was working as a field researcher for a community development project with UT’s Institute for Community Research, and quickly began to make the connections between social determinants, living environments, and health,” she said. “One of my professors at the time had earned an MPH from USF and suggested I look into it because of my observations. Around that same time, I also had the opportunity to meet Dr. Ruth Westheimer and talk about my interest in reproductive justice. She also directed me to public health as a career path.”

Nicole Sutton, MPH (Photo courtesy of Sutton)

In 2000, Sutton took a job at University of Hawaii Cancer Research Center under Dr. Karen Glanz working in tobacco control, a role that she held for almost 14 years.

USF’s public health program had been on Sutton’s radar screen since 1999. 

“It has a reputation as one of the best public health degrees in a public university setting. Though I did not pursue dual degree programs, it was an aspect that kept USF’s program specifically on my radar screen,” she said. “Because I was living and working in the Pacific, I knew it was a matter of timing as I would likely move to the U.S. mainland to do the degree in person. Then in 2015 I made a full-time move to Tampa after giving birth to my son.”

During her time as a student in the COPH, Sutton overcame many challenges as a single parent to a four-year old, survivor of intimate partner abuse and caregiver for her mother.

“While learning extensively about social determinants, I was simultaneously experiencing the impact of them on my own health and life circumstances,” she said. “At times, I questioned why I had even made the decision to do this, but I continued to remind myself that I belonged in the environment, that I have the intellectual capacity to do this work, and that I possess the grit and passion needed to work in the areas of public health where I’m needed.” 

Sutton said that her family made a lot of sacrifices for her to be able to earn her degree, including financial insecurity. She was also cooperating with the criminal case against the person who perpetrated her and was in family court trying to maintain custody of her son. 

“Not only was I dealing with the trauma from what occurred, but I also experienced the institutional re-victimization that happens to people involved in the legal systems. You look back and can’t really believe you balanced all these things and made it through,” she said. “School was an important focal point that helped keep me grounded in my knowing that I am moving my life ahead, that I am pursuing an area that may result in others having to struggle less, and also experiencing a sense of competency that helped me recognize my value as a human being in the aftermath of going through the dehumanization of abuse.”

Sutton said that she’s extremely proud of the fact that she made it through her degree given the many challenges she faced.

“I am also proud of making the decision to go from being an online student to a health education student, which required transition to in-person classes. In almost all of my classes, I was the oldest student. Still though, I chose to participate in student leadership opportunities and social events,” she said. “That made a huge difference in my experience and feeling that social connectedness to my fellow students and identity as a grad student. It really is a time in life that is special and a privilege because not everyone has the opportunity to hit the pause button in life in order to go back to school.”

Nicole Sutton and her son after USF’s Virtual Graduation. (Photo courtesy of Sutton)

After graduation, Sutton will be working with the USF Contemporary Art Museum as a VTS facilitator for Fall 2020, while supporting her son academically through this time of COVID-19. Her future intention is to continue in pursuit a terminal public health degree. 

“I have years of real-life experience as a public health practitioner, particularly in the area of community-based participatory research and grassroots organizing. I would like to be able to achieve a level of education that allows me to be an instructor and mentor to those who are just starting their training and careers,” she said. “I love to teach and I also love to write. I want to carve out another few years to commit to finishing my educational goals.”

Sutton also noted that this month is her 45th birthday!

“I technically started my professional career in public health in 2000. There is something really special for me about being in the field for 20 years, having a “big b-day”, and completing my MPH at the same time,” she said. “I see it as an important turning point in moving forward with building a beautiful life for my son and continuing to contribute to life-changing public health work.”

Story by Caitlin Keough, USF College of Public Health